Christian Kiefer

California State University Sacramento

The Morality of Blood: Examining the Moral Code of The Crossing


We can all think of examples of Western heroes. They are on horseback, riding, carrying rifle or pistol, besieged by "wild injuns" or dark riders or even at times the earth itself. As historian Richard White has observed, "When Americans tell stories about themselves, they set those stories in the West. The American heroes are Western heroes. When you begin to think of the quintessential American characters, they're always some place over the horizon" (The West). The Western hero is the man who rides into town and defends the innocent settlers (as in Shane) or goes after the villain at all costs (as in Nevada Smith). He is a man with a code of conduct and action which guides him and informs his actions, so much so that indeed the Western hero would be no hero at all without the code. In the traditional Western, adherence to this code not only guarantees survival but ultimately guarantees heroic success as well.

It is therefore a huge divergence when an author dares to show the guarantee of the moral code to be no guarantee at all. Traditional Westerns--The Virginian, Hondo, Shane, Riders of the Purple Sage--all depend entirely on the existence of a code. It is what instructs the hero when to stand and fight, whom to defend, whom to attack, and what lines cannot be crossed without gunfire. And it is also that which tells him that, if he adheres to the code, he will succeed, and of this fact there is no question.

But modern interpreters of the Western mythos seem to present us with a much different take on the Western hero, and in particular the effectiveness of his code of conduct. Larry McMurtry's The Streets of Laredo, as just one example, presents us with heroes who adhere strictly to the moral code but who find that moral code suddenly inadequate in the face of what can only be described as "real life." We can also find alterations, modifications, and downright heroic failures in such revisionist Westerns as Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Jim Harrison’s "Legends of the Fall," and of course, Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing.

It is this last novel which is the focus of this paper. The concept of a "moral code" is essential to the novel, and yet the novel tells us the story of a boy whose actions never truly come out as he expects them to. This fact flies directly in the face of the very concept of the Western hero's moral code, since there is a fundamental assumption in the genre that a Western hero will act in a certain manner and that in the end, like some desert Hercules, he will succeed in whatever heroic tasks he undertakes. How, then, are we to understand a Western which gives us a character with a hero's sense of morality--a moral code--and yet finds that time and again that very code creates not victory but defeat? Do we view such a character as a hero and, if so, how? After all, the closing of the novel does not offer us a picture consistent with our preconceived notions of what a hero is:

He walked out. A cold wind was coming down off the mountains. It was shearing off the western slopes of the continent where the summer snow lay above the timberline and it was crossing through the high fir forests and among the poles of the aspens and it was sweeping over the desert plain below. It had ceased raining in the night and he walked out on the road and called for the dog. He called and called. Standing in that inexplicable darkness. Where there was no sound anywhere save only the wind. After a while he sat in the road. He took off his hat and placed it on the tarmac before him and he bowed his head and held his face in his hands and wept. (425-26)

Billy is not allowed the standard Western ending of riding triumphantly into the sunset. Rather, in the end he is merely left a lonely, weeping young man, calling for a mangled dog. And we as readers are left to wonder what sort of heroic survival is it that leaves a man so crippled? (Indeed, this is ultimately an indication that the heroes of revisionist Westerns such as McCarthy’s are not the indestructible supermen of their traditional forebears.)

Perhaps the most logical method of examining the failure of such revisionist heroic action to bring heroic conclusions is to first examine the code of behavior which dictates traditional heroic action. Daryl Jones describes the inception of the truly Western hero, the hero of dime novels in the mid-1800s, as

. . . an agent of civilization. A fiercely independent man, he is neither suited to nor comfortable amid the laws and proprieties of the settlement. Instead, he lives a perilous but free life on the frontier. Here he contends with the forces of ignorance and savagery. Always triumphant, he slowly but surely pushes back the wilderness, blazing a trail which his more civilized brothers may follow to a golden age in which a free and equal citizenry, physically invigorated and spiritually purified by close and continual contact with Nature, will someday live in perfect harmony.

Jones’ understanding of the Western hero as living a "perilous but free life on the frontier" is contrasted with the character's role in pushing back the wilderness. Further, in pushing back wilderness, the Western hero introduces a code of conduct which is a sort of hybrid of the world he has left behind--essentially a code of civilization, but also one which has been adapted to match the wilderness of his new landscape.

This code of conduct is fundamental to the traditional Western hero because traditional Western heroes are ultimately moral heroes. In fact, in the first large-scale review of the dime novel phenomenon, the reviewer wrote that the novels on the whole were "unobjectionable morally, whatever fault be found with their literary style and composition. They do not even obscurely pander to vice, or excite the passions" (Pearson 91). Indeed, the early views of the Western hero were based completely on the object lesson, the concept of morality, and the idea that even in the perils of a wild land, the staunch morals of a few good men could win out over almost insurmountable evils. For Beadle & Adams and the other early publishers of dime novels, the Western hero was a vehicle for a moral agenda.

So how do revisionist Western heroes fit into this long history of the traditional Western hero's "moral code"? It is not a question that can be easily answered. William C. Spencer, in an essay on the role of the hero in McCarthy’s revisionist Western The Crossing, recognizes that neither of the novel's protagonists (the brothers Billy and Boyd Parham) are traditional Western heroes: "Boyd does not fit the mold of the traditional Western hero as well as John Grady [in All the Pretty Horses], and Billy does not even come close" (333). With this added difficulty, how are we to reconcile Billy Parham--essentially a complete loser in comparison with Zane Grey's Lassiter, Jack Schaefer's Shane, or Owen Wister's famous Virginian--to the concept of the hero that I have already described? And, perhaps more important for our purposes, how does Billy Parham's moral code compare with that of the traditional heroes of the West?

First, it is important to recognize that McCarthy had already worked with the concept of the Western hero in the first book of the Border Trilogy, All the Pretty Horses. In that novel, young John Grady Cole basically acts as if he were a true Western hero. He is an expert horseman, able gunman (when needed), and lover of the most beautiful girl at the ranch, Alejandra. However, the novel does not end with the gleeful marriage of John Grady and Alejandra. Instead, all of John Grady's actions leave him guilty and alone.

In both All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing, the hero's adherence to his "moral code" fails to bring about the desired (and perhaps even expected) results. Perhaps the most easily cited example of this failure is John Grady's fall from grace with the Duena Alfonsa in All the Pretty Horses. His association with Jimmy Blevins creates a fall from grace with the Duena and therefore ends his relationship with Alejandra--a relationship which the Duena had seemingly blessed previous to John Grady's known association with Blevins. But the code to which he adheres (which dictates that he aid Blevins, who is essentially one of his brother horsemen) is not a code that meshes with the Duena's code--a code which ultimately dictates whom Alejandra will marry. Essentially, then, what we see with John Grady is a masculine, hero's code colliding with the feminine, matriarch's code of the Duena Alfonsa, and losing to its power.

John Grady's problem in All the Pretty Horses is increased tenfold with Billy Parham in The Crossing. Whereas John Grady's heroic actions do work to his advantage for much of the novel, Billy Parham's do not ever seem to work. In fact, every time Billy tries to act on his heart, the action backfires completely. So how can we reconcile the concept of the hero's code--that code which, if correct and just, will surely lead the hero to success--with the fact of Billy Parham's constant failure? If Billy is a complete failure, then how can he be a hero at all?

William Spencer addresses this very issue in "The Western Hero Unmasked in The Crossing." After describing McCarthy's treatment of Boyd's heroism, namely that it is based on popular myth rather than true action, Spencer goes on to describe McCarthy's portrayal of Billy as a hero of a different sort: "The assertion that McCarthy intends for readers to recognize Billy Parham as heroic is not an easy one to prove. Admittedly, in fact, the author takes some pains to characterize his protagonist as a three-time loser and a consistent failure. Nevertheless, McCarthy does mean for us to see Billy as a hero and even more of a hero than Boyd. The novelist sets for himself the difficult challenge of portraying a hero in the midst of failure, but he does successfully meet the challenge." (335)

McCarthy's treatment of Billy's "heroic" stature, then, relies entirely on his moral code. Billy acts, does not back down from his actions, and does not shirk his responsibilities even when faced with the dire consequences that his inevitable failure presents him.

So what, exactly, is Billy's moral code and how do we define it? The question is complex, but not impossible to answer, for the code of Billy Parham is a code of action. Further, examining Billy Parham’s moral code will serve to illustrate one of the most important facets of revisionist Western fiction--the conflict between action and outcome.

What then do Billy's actions tell us? First in the novel comes Billy's apparent feeling of solidarity with wolves and, in particular, with the pregnant she-wolf he catches in his trap. This is a complex image--a female mother warrior--and what this addresses in Jungian or Freudian terms would fill a paper much longer than this. I will only postulate that Billy's kinship with the wolf is a kinship shared with a creature he feels is a solitary warrior--perhaps how he views himself.

In one of the novel's opening scenes, Billy witnesses the wolves for the first time, and it is a vision so miraculous to Billy that "he never told anybody" what he'd seen (5). But what was it that Billy saw as a child that led him into Mexico to free the wolf? Of course, McCarthy does not tell us, but from his description, I would guess that what Billy sees--clearly and for the first time--is wildness itself: "Loping and twisting. Dancing. Tunneling their noses in the snow. Loping and running and rising by twos in a standing dance and running on again" (4). But it is not until they pass close to him that he feels a true connection:

"There were seven of them and they passed within twenty feet of where he lay. He could see their almond eyes in the moonlight. He could hear their breath. He could feel the presence of their knowing that was electric in the air. They bunched and nuzzled and licked one another. Then they stopped. They stood with their ears cocked. Some with one forefoot raised to their chest. They were looking at him. He did not breathe. They did not breathe. They stood. Then they turned and quietly trotted on." (4-5)

In this scene, Billy experiences a communion with nature which is one of the most breathtaking in literature. To say that in that moment he becomes an "environmentalist" is risky; the term brings with it much unneeded baggage. Nevertheless, this is precisely what Billy Parham is in this scene, and it is an environmentalism complete with its own morality, and it is this morality that Billy enters into fully and adheres to throughout the novel.

This does not mean that Billy’s code ceases to be one of action, as I have previously asserted. Rather, the environmental vision Billy comes to know is coupled with the code of action, creating a hybrid Western heroic code, one which takes as its foundation the code of action common to Western heroes and overlays it with a new code of wild environmentalism.

The "indian" Billy helps toward the beginning of the novel reinforces this environmental reading. He is a prefiguring of the wolf (and an ominous hint of the death of Billy's family) and he is a signal of Billy's many problems with the code he has already begun to develop. In All the Pretty Horses, McCarthy already had brought to bear a child's notion of what can only be described as "wild Injuns" in the imagination of John Grady Cole:

". . . where the painted ponies and the riders of that lost nation came down out of the north with their faces chalked and their long hair plaited and each armed for war which was their life and the women and children and women with children at their breasts all of them pledged in blood and redeemable in blood only. "

The fact that both books begin with visions of this sort forms a tight thematic link between them. And similar to John Grady's vision, Billy's links him to a child's vision of an "indian." Again, McCarthy will not tell us why Billy chooses to help the abusive "indian," even volunteering information to him which would have been easy to hide. Nonetheless, Billy does so. It is when we look more closely at his growing code--the code of the wild--that Billy's choices begin to make sense.

What Billy sees in the Indian is twofold. First, he sees an "indian." There is hardly a mention of indigenous peoples in The Crossing, and there is certainly no passage like the one quoted from John Grady's vision in All the Pretty Horses. However, I believe Billy Parham's vision of the Indian is much the same as John Grady's in that he associates the "indian" with wildness much as he associates the wolf with wildness. Additionally, the Indian is truly, in this scene, a solitary warrior, much as the she-wolf is and much as Billy believes himself to be (and is for much of the novel). So just as a character like Odysseus can find hospitality and rest from his travels at the cities of other men like him (i.e., other warriors), so Billy feels obligated to help a fellow solitary warrior.

Billy again is a sort of fumbling environmentalist in assisting the Indian--a man whom he believes to be "wild" and who, we find later, is actually a murderer. The fact that it is apparently the Indian who later returns to kill Billy's family while he is in Mexico reveals to us for the second time (the first being the wolf's death) that his adherence to a code of the wild is not always the best path. In this case, Billy's complete honesty and blind trust of the Indian directly bring about the murder of his parents and the trip to Mexico which ends in Boyd's death. But how can you blame him? According to his imagination, all Indians are "wild" and wild, for Billy, is good.

But the vision of wolves and the Indian are both just teasers for the bulk of the opening section--Billy's first journey into Mexico to return the captured she-wolf to the mountains. It is in this section that he receives his first lesson in the school of (very) hard knocks which is The Crossing. Billy's idea to take the wolf back to the Mexican mountains is a good and honorable one. It is also his most obvious and righteous act as an "environmentalist." After all, we've already witnessed his solidarity with the creatures of the wild: wolves and Indians. Once he actually assumes responsibility for a wild thing, his moral code dictates that he must return the wild thing to the wilderness whence it came. The wolf is his symbolic mother as he is born into his own life, the life which is the life of the wild.

Of course, the quest sounds simple enough, but McCarthy’s readers know that nothing in his world (or ours) is simple. Billy's first journey into Mexico is absurd and dangerous and, most of all, very sad. But his problems are such that they could not possibly be avoided. After all, Billy is essentially bringing a new "code of the wild" into a land with a completely different code--a code which is primitive and seemingly barbaric, but one which somehow is also very human. Billy’s code is a "moral code" in the same sense as the traditional Western hero’s, but his moral code is not the same as theirs. While the traditional hero’s code is ultimately dictated by society, Billy’s is more personal, more environment-minded. Ultimately Billy's quest is not for the human at all but for the wild, and this distinction makes all the difference. (Further discussion on this topic can be found in the author’s essay "Rewriting a Twisted Pair," listed in the bibliography).

This is not to say that the Mexico of the novel is not wild. Much to the contrary, the Mexico of the novel is vastly more wild than Billy's New Mexican home. However, Billy's vision of "wild" (the wolves loping through the snow) is at intense odds with the real violence and blood of the land he has entered; the violence of the wolf, of the "real" wild, is vastly different from the violence of men. This issue is one of the most fundamental in the novel as Billy tries to reconcile his vision of the wild--where things happen for a reason--to his vision of mankind--where things are most often (for him) random, violent, and saddening.

The wolf section acts as a prequel to the next two border crossings, which are quintessentially Western in the same way that the first section is quintessentially environmental. The first hint that McCarthy is taking us directly into the genre of the Western hero occurs when we discover that Billy’s parents have been murdered. This situation presents us with one of the themes classic to Westerns: a young man's parents are brutally murdered (as in the films Nevada Smith or The Outlaw Josey Wales) and the young man must "become" a Western hero in order to avenge their deaths. So here McCarthy explicitly connects Billy Parham to the myth of the Western hero by providing us with a classic hero set-up. At this point in the novel, both characters have already been through a great deal--Billy's sadness after the death of the wolf and Boyd's after the death of his parents. In a sense, both characters have had their separate families die: Billy's figurative mother in the pack of the wild and Boyd’s true blood family. For both of them the experience has solidified them as warriors. Now they can depend on no one, trust nothing, only each other. This lack of trust of the "outside" signifies another fundamental Western theme, and one very important in understanding the concept of the moral code in the novel. Jane Tompkins writes,: "The very process that brings the hero and his reader to moments of exquisite excitement and superhuman concentration has, ultimately, a deadening effect. The hero who is pushed beyond his limits again and again eventually loses the capacity to feel. The result is gradual etiolation of the nerves." (214) This statement is quite true of most Westerns. However, it is fundamentally not true of The Crossing. Both Billy and Boyd manage to retain their hearts throughout the novel. This fact is most poignantly illustrated by Billy's sad state of penitence at the end of the novel and by the simple fact that Boyd is able to fall in love.

What this says about the moral code of The Crossing is that, for McCarthy, the Western hero has a heart and that his heart is breakable many times but it is never broken. Part of the problem for McCarthy with the whole traditional Western hero myth is that the characters tend to act as if emotions were nonexistent, as Tompkins pointed out in the passage quoted earlier. However, McCarthy's protagonists (and many other revisionist Western heroes) are realistic characters and they have realistic feelings. And no amount of pain will scar their hearts so badly that they lose the ability to feel. This ability to retain his heart is what makes Billy heroic (and it is what made John Grady Cole a hero in All the Pretty Horses). Billy is a brother in a morality of blood, and despite the repeated failure of that morality to achieve positive results, he continues to believe that his actions are correct and that it is the world of man which is filled with chaos and terror.

This is not to imply that Billy and Boyd do not perform acts which are heroic and successful in the most traditional sense. Early in the second trip to Mexico, the brothers rescue a young girl from an implied threat of rape. This section is extremely interesting because of the almost pulp-like action scene in which McCarthy presents the rescue:

Boyd rode the horses almost through the fire and pulled Keno up stamping and wild-eyed. He caught the reins in his teeth again and pitched the shotgun to Billy. Billy caught it and took the girl by the elbow and swung her toward the horse. The other two horses had vanished out on the darkened plain to the south of the camp and the man who'd pitched him the bottle of mescal was coming back out of the darkness carrying in his left hand a long thin knife. Other than the sound of the horses blowing and stamping all was silence. No one spoke. The dog circled nervously behind the horses. Vámonos, said Billy. When he looked the girl was already seated on the horse's crupper behind saddle and blanketroll. He grabbed the reins from Boyd and swung them over the horse's head and cocked the shotgun in one hand like a pistol. He didnt know whether it was loaded or not. (210-11)

The scene is classically Western, and one could imagine Shane or Lassiter or Hondo or any John Wayne character performing much the same act of heroics. Indeed, the rescue of a "fair maiden" from imminent danger is a theme which has followed the hero through Malory’s tales of the Arthurian knights and into the Western. In The Crossing, the act is particularly noteworthly because it is a successful act, an entirely rare event in the course of the novel. Billy and Boyd at least share this one quality with the classic Western hero: they willingly come to the aid of the "damsel in distress." Of course, it is Boyd who falls in love with the girl and it is Boyd who becomes known as a hero in Mexico through his adoption into a pre-existing corrido. Nonetheless, it is Billy who instigates and carries out the rescue; Boyd's role is merely as his assistant.

But why is this scene successful when Billy's other attempts at moral or valorous acts are less so? Perhaps simply because McCarthy does not mean to present us with an utterly cursed boy, but rather with a realistic one. Billy’s actions are not automatically doomed to failure; rather, some of his actions can succeed, but unlike in the world of the traditional Western, they are not guaranteed to do so. Utter failure would have presented a pathetic character, and this is not McCarthy's intention. Billy's morality causes him to act on the perceived violence against the girl, and in this rare instance, that part of his moral act is successful.

However, when we look more closely at the role of the girl in the novel, we begin to see that Billy was perhaps not so successful after all. Certainly the act of rescue was a successful act, but it did not bring him the expected results (that is, the results the reader, not Billy, expected). The girl does not become "his," nor does she present herself as the ongoing heroine of the story. Rather, it is the girl who eventually brings about Boyd's split from Billy, leading eventually to that last crossing into the old country and the excavation of Boyd's bones. At that point in the novel, Billy says, "This is my third trip. It's the only time I was ever down here that I got what I come after. But it sure as hell wasnt what I wanted" (416). Much the same could be said about Billy's rescue of the girl.

Before Billy begins his third journey into Mexico, though, we are first given a short section which takes place back in America, a section in which Billy attempts repeatedly to join the service gearing up for World War II. At first, we are somewhat troubled by this sudden devotion to fight in a war he does not even care about, indeed a conflict which he does not even know about until it is well underway. However, at closer examination, Billy's desire to join the service tells much about him and particularly about his character at this point in the novel.

We must hremember Billy's words when his brother's shirt "belled out behind him redly and he fell down on the ground" (269): "Why couldnt the sons of bitches have shot me?" (273) Billy's comment here describes not only a condition that describes Billy's psyche quite well but also a condition that is absolutely human. Billy well knows that the devotion to find the horses is his and his alone; it is not shared by Boyd. However, it is Billy's devotion to finding the horses which eventually leads to Boyd's shooting. Boyd's desire to find the horses seems to fade soon after they first cross into Mexico, leaving Billy to push his brother into traveling further into the old country in search of what Billy believes is rightfully theirs.

It is directly after Boyd's shooting, healing, and disappearance that Billy attempts to join the service. With a character whose personal code directs him into the dangerous backcountry of Mexico, it is difficult to imagine why he would want to suddenly join a government organization to be shipped off into a war he knows nothing about. However, perhaps it would not be too far-fetched to state that Billy is beginning to find fault with his sense of morality and action at this point in the novel, learning perhaps that his sense of morality is no match for the decidedly revisionist universe. After all, his moral and environmental act of returning the wolf to the mountains has ended in that wolf's death. His trip to find his murdered family's horses has ended with his brother's near fatal wound and subsequent disappearance. It is only human that Billy begins questioning the validity of his actions. If he consistently does what he feels is right, then why do the consequences always come out wrong?

So it is that Billy decides to try on another morality--the morality dictated by social conditions which will send him into an organization and into a war which he knows nothing about. In a very real sense, joining the service for Billy is a sort of suicide since he will essentially have to give up his self-produced moral code for a code prescribed by the war machine. Billy will become (and I believe he knows this) an anonymous young man without past or future, only another soldier. And, further, joining the service is Billy's fumbling attempt to rejoin society, a condition he left years earlier when he first traveled to Mexico with the she-wolf. The fact that Billy is expected to go to war as a condition of living within society is graphically illustrated when he is berated for his lack of uniform by a soldier and a bartender (347-49).

But Billy's heart is not in society and so it is not in the war effort (Spencer 336). In fact, Billy's heart is too much alone to join anything (as symbolically pointed out by his physical heart defect), and when he realizes this fact he sets off to find his brother, perhaps as a way of reconnecting to his own personal sense of morality and also in response to his inability to fulfill the social directive given to him by the war effort.

The fact that this final journey results in the discovery and return of Boyd's desiccated remains in a sense finalizes Billy's doom. It seems that all he touches is damned. Certainly everything he truly has cared for in his life is gone, despite his best efforts to save them. William Spencer is correct in equating the heroism of such a character to Camus' reading of the Sisyphus myth (337), for certainly if we can understand Billy to be a hero at all, then he is a hero of the absurd. Billy’s heroism is absurd because his traditionally moral actions do not match the revisionist universe in which he dwells. In a traditionally heroic universe, heroic actions are rewarded by heroic consequences: the heroine is saved, the villain is disposed of, and the hero is celebrated as a hero. As we have seen in The Crossing, revisionist Westerns are not quite so simple. Billy’s actions end often in failure and rather than ending a "hero" (in the traditional sense) Billy ends a weeping boy calling for a mangled dog. Billy's failures occur because he continues to believe in the inherent morality of the world. He believes in the myth that good always wins over evil and is shocked and crushed each time his heart's morality leads to violence and death. But in the revisionist world which is The Crossing, right and moral actions are simply not enough to guarantee success. Billy’s moral stance is essentially the same as that reinforced by the early dime novel Westerns and by traditional Western literature and film. But Billy's world is more real than the canned worlds of those earlier literatures. Billy's world is a place of beauty and of terror--and they are equal and intertwined. In the passage which ends the first chapter of the novel, McCarthy writes of the wolf:

Deer and hare and dove and groundvole all richly empaneled on the air for her delight, all nations of the possible world ordained by God of which she was one among and not separate from. Where she ran the cries of the coyotes clapped shut as if a door had closed upon them and all was fear and marvel. He took up her stiff head out of the leaves and held it or he reached to hold what cannot be held, what already ran among the mountains at once terrible and of a great beauty, like flowers that feed on flesh. What blood and bone are made of but can themselves not make on any altar nor by any wound of war. What we may well believe has power to cut and shape and hollow out the dark form of the world surely if wind can, if rain can. But which cannot be held never be held and is no flower but is swift and a huntress and the wind itself is in terror of it and the world cannot lose it. (127)

As he tries to hold the wolf, Billy attempts repeatedly to hold that "which cannot be held never be held." He cannot understand the world, indeed sometimes can hardly even bear it, but he nonetheless continues to live by his heart and that heart's code, chasing the beauty of the world and slowly recognizing the terror entwined within that beauty.